Author Spotlight: Paula Yoo & Giveaway

© Sonya Sones

KidLit411 is proud to present the very talented PAULA YOO in the Author Spotlight this week. Paula's new book, TWENTY-TWO CENTS: MUHAMMAD YUNUS AND THE VILLAGE BANK (illustrated by Jamel Akib) for Lee & Low Books is out this August. Paula is also known for spearheading one of the first and most successful picture book writing challenges, National Picture Book Writing Week (NaPiBoWriWee). Thanks so much for joining us, Paula!

Be sure to enter the drawing at the end of this interview to win a SIGNED copy of 22 CENTS: MUHAMMAD YUNUS AND THE VILLAGE BANK! Paula will mail the book in late August or September.

You’ve had quite a career, from journalist to TV producer to children’s book writer, in both picture books and YA. Can you tell us about this journey? What propelled you from one career to another and how did you end up writing for young people?

I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I was inspired to write after reading CHARLOTTE’S WEB. Charlotte the spider writer was my role model. I wrote my first “novel” in the 2nd grade and actually submitted it to Harper & Row (now HarperCollins). I received  a very nice letter that said I was a talented writer who should try out for their children’s writing contest. I remember ripping up the letter and saying, “I’m a REAL writer, not a CHILD writer!” Ha! Clearly I did not take my first rejection very well. The irony was that years (decades, really) later, HarperCollins would finally accept my first novel GOOD ENOUGH for publication! 

I have always wanted to be a novelist ever since I read CHARLOTTE’S WEB as a child. That pipe dream eventually led to majoring in English at Yale and then getting my M.S. in Journalism from Columbia University. I had decided to pursue journalism because I felt I was too “young” at age 22 to write the “Great American Novel.” I felt I needed to “live life” more and gain more experience first. So that’s how I ended up becoming a reporter for The Seattle Times, The Detroit News and finally PEOPLE Magazine. 

I finally decided to “go for it” with fiction writing after about a decade of working in journalism. I am grateful for how journalism helped me develop the skills also necessary for fiction writing. I left the field to teach English composition at the community college level while pursuing my MFA in creative writing at Warren Wilson College’s low residency graduate program. I attended writing conferences which led to meeting my future agent, Steven Malk of The Writers’ House. At the time, I was writing adult literary novels. Steve encouraged me try my hand at children’s writing because he felt I had the voice for it. 

I wrote a few failed YA novels and failed picture books but I learned so much from writing these first few books. I also took children’s writing courses at UCLA Extension Writers’ Program (where I now teach occasionally). I never gave up because I fell in love with writing for children and young adults.

Although my dream was to be published, I had to pay the mortgage. So I ended up applying for and getting accepted into the Warner Bros. TV Drama Writing Workshop on the recommendation of a friend who thought my journalism deadline skills mixed with my fiction writing and my love of TV would be a good combination. She was right - I was accepted and that led me down my other career as a TV writer/producer. I have written for everything from NBC’s “The West Wing” to SyFy’s “Eureka.” I am currently a Supervising Producer for the Amazon series, “Mozart in the Jungle.”

What was your “big break” in writing for children?

My “big break” came when I submitted a manuscript to the Lee & Low New Voices picture book writing contest in 2003. I had submitted to this contest before and gotten rejected. The second time I entered this contest, I submitted a manuscript called SIXTEEN YEARS IN SIXTEEN SECONDS: THE SAMMY LEE STORY about the Olympic gold medalist and doctor Sammy Lee who overcame racial discrimination to become one of the first Asian Americans to win a Gold Medal at the Olympics.

I received a phone call from Philip Lee of Lee & Low three days before Christmas. He congratulated me for winning the contest. Talk about a Merry Christmas celebration! I had no idea the book would take off like it did. It was an honor and privilege to win that contest and I’m grateful for what it has done for my book career. I also was honored that one of my favorite illustrators, Dom Lee, was the illustrator for my first picture book.

Since then, I have published two more books with Lee & Low - 2009’s SHINING STAR: THE ANNA MAY WONG STORY (illustrated by Lin Wang) and my latest book, 2014’s TWENTY-TWO CENTS: MUHAMMAD YUNUS AND THE VILLAGE BANK (illustrated by Jamel Akib).

As for novels, my first YA novel GOOD ENOUGH was published in 2008 by HarperCollins (the paperback came out in 2012). I had written three other YA novels before then that showed promise but were “missing” something. In writing GOOD ENOUGH, it was the first time I had written not only about my own life as a teen geek violinist, but I also wrote from the heart. I think that combination of “write what you know” and “write from your heart” proved to be the reason why this was my first published novel. I’m very grateful for how well GOOD ENOUGH has done. I can only hope my next novel will be “good enough”! Ha! 

You’re known for spearheading one of the first and most successful picture book writing challenges, National Picture Book Writing Week (NaPiBoWriWee). How did you get this idea and what is the best thing that has come out of it for you?

I originally came up with the idea of NaPiBoWriWee as a funny joke in 2009 because I hadn’t written a picture book in awhile. Plus, I wanted a way to promote the 2009 publication of my second picture book with Lee & Low (SHINING STAR: TE ANNA MAY WONG STORY, illustrated by Lin Wang). 

I had participated in the very fun and awesome “NaNoWriMo” (National Novel Writing Month) and thought, “Wouldn’t it be funny if I tried to write 7 picture books in 7 days and jokingly called it National Picture Book Writing Week, or NaPiBoWriWee?” 

Well, that “joke” ended up being taken VERY SERIOUSLY. Basically I had written a funny blog about my goal to write 7 picture books in 7 days to promote “Shining Star” and invited everyone to join me on this journey. To my shock, HUNDREDS of aspiring writers from all over the United States and as far away as Egypt, Hong Kong, Paris, and Australia signed up for my blog. They literally shut down my website for a couple days because the server crashed! Even famous veteran renowned authors like Ann Whitford Paul emailed me to ask if they too could participate, too.

So what was supposed to be just a funny blog ended up becoming a cottage industry overnight. I had Ann Whitford Paul and other established picture book authors and illustrators answer interview questions about their writing process and offered autographed books by them as door prizes. Everyone who participated posted comments on my blog about their progress. I even created a CafePress store with souvenir T-shirts, buttons, and coffee mugs.

Since 2009, NaPiBoWriWee has become an annual institution with hundreds of writers all over the world participating every May 1-7. It’s been a real treat and a fun way to inspire writers AND myself to stop procrastinating and get those first drafts down on paper. 

The goal of NaPiBoWriWee is simply to encourage people to not just write but FINISH a first rough draft. The real writing is in the “rewriting” and revising of these first drafts, so you gotta have a first draft in order to revise it! 

My goal is just to encourage everyone to FINISH writing a book instead of starting and stopping. Since I started this event, we’ve had some success stories of people getting agents and joining SCBWI etc. Hopefully one day someone will get a book published thanks to NaPiBoWriWee. I think that’s just around the corner!

To participate in NaPiBoWriWee, please visit my official NaPiBoWriWee blog. The event takes place every May 1-7. Stop by our souvenir store too.

Tell us about your upcoming PB release, TWENTY-TWO CENTS: MUHAMMAD YUNUS AND THE VILLAGE BANK.

I’m excited to announce my latest book launches this August 15, 2014. It’s my third children’s picture book biography to be published by Lee & Low Books. The book is called TWENTY CENTS: MUHAMMAD YUNUS AND THE VILLAGE BANK. It is scheduled for an August 15 release. The amazing illustrator for the book is Jamel Akib.

The book was inspired by my editor Jason Low who had always wanted someone to write a picture book biography on Muhammad Yunus. He mentioned this to me, and I decided to research Professor Yunus’ life. I was soon obsessed with Professor Yunus’ amazing story and realized Jason was right - he would make for a great children’s book biography.

I had the honor and privilege of interviewing 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus who won, along with his organization, Grameen Bank, for using the concept of “micro credit” to help eradicate poverty in Bangladesh.

Paula Yoo and Professor Yunus

The book description: “Growing up in Bangladesh, Muhammad Yunus witnessed extreme poverty all around and was determined to eradicate it. In 1976, as an Economics professor, Muhammad met a young craftswoman in the village of Jobra who needed to borrow five taka (twenty-two cents) to buy materials. 

No bank would lend such a small amount to an uneducated woman, so she was forced to borrow from corrupt lenders who charged an unfair interest rate, and left her without enough profit to buy food. 

Muhammad realized that what stood in the way of her financial security was just a few cents. Inspired, Muhammad founded Grameen Bank where people could borrow small amounts of money to start a job, and then pay back the bank without exorbitant interest charges. 

Over the next few years, Muhammad’s compassion and determination changed the lives of millions of people by loaning the equivalent of more than ten billion US dollars in micro-credit. This has also served to advocate and empower the poor, especially women, who often have limited options. 

TWENTY-TWO CENTS is an inspiring story of economic innovation and a celebration of how one person—like one small loan—can make a positive difference in the lives of many.”

The official KIRKUS REVIEW came out on June 29, 2014: 

“Microbanks aren’t new, although they are gaining prominence. Here is the story of the first—or at least the formal first—and the one that gained the most notoriety.

“Muhammad Yunus grows up in the far-eastern part of India before Partition, in what is now Bangladesh. Although his father makes a decent living, Muhammad is exposed to poverty every day, from beggars at his door to the poor encampments he sees during his Boy Scout excursions. He graduates university, and each day as he walks to work, he passes a woman making stools from bamboo; she is obviously in dire financial straits. He stops to speak with her, to learn her circumstances. Yoo tells the story clearly and unflinchingly, though compassionately, explaining to readers the dreadful trap of the debt cycle. That is lesson No. 1 in this book: The debt cycle is a global plague. Yunus realizes that a simple monetary gift will not help the women out of poverty, but a tiny loan that brings her and other village women into entrepreneurship can. This is lesson No. 2 and what earns Yunus the Noble Peace Prize. Akib’s artwork is drawn in hot shades of pastel that are at once unforgiving and exhilarating.

“A heart-gladdening testament to pulling your own suspenders tight, with a little help from your friends. (Picture book/biography. 6-11)”

When you write a picture book biography, what is your writing process (e.g., how do you research the subject? do you try to find an angle to write about? etc)?

I do two things at once - I not only research the biography subject but I also constantly ask myself, “What is the main story that would appeal to child readers?” I try to find what universal elements of the person’s history that would appeal to children in a universal manner. For example, with Dr. Sammy Lee and Anna May Wong, it was about how a child can overcome obstacles in order to pursue his/her dream. With Professor Yunus, it was about how a child can use compassion and kindness to make the world a better place. 

I tend not to know what the actual universal theme is until I do a ton of research. The theme usually arises from the research I’ve done as I start to find out the common links in all the documents and books I read. But what helps is constantly asking myself, “What theme or universal concept in this person’s life can a child relate to?”

You’ve written in various categories (PB, MG, YA). Do you find some more difficult to write than others?

I find every single category to be incredibly difficult and challenging, whether it’s a picture book, novel, or TV/movie script. Writing is HAAAARD! LOL! Seriously though… I would say I am most comfortable writing novels. They seem to be the most organic format for me. Probably because I’m very talkative. :) Picture books tend to be the most difficult only because you have to say so much in so little space - it’s like writing a poem. Every word has to count. But overall, I do find every genre to have its own unique challenges.

What projects are you working on now?

I am currently Supervising Producer on the Amazon series MOZART IN THE JUNGLE. It’s a wonderful comedy series about the real lives of classical orchestra musicians based on professional oboist Blair Tindall’s famous memoir. I draw upon my other background as a professional freelance violinist to write for this show. I’m thrilled to be a part of this series’ first season. You can currently catch the pilot on and the rest of the first season will be available this December.

As for books, I’m currently promoting my latest book, TWENTY-TWO CENTS: MUHAMMAD YUNUS AND THE VILLAGE BANK (illustrated by Jamel Akib) for Lee & Low Books. I’m so excited about this book and hope children and teachers can learn a lot from Professor Yunus’ amazing life story and achievements.

I’m also always working on a new novel or script or picture book idea in the background, so the work never ends!

Anchovies on pizza – yes or no?

YES! YES! YES! Coincidentally - I literally have about a half dozen tins of anchovies in the pantry from Trader Joe’s. I LOVE anchovies. I cook all the time (amateur foodie cook who is obsessed with Food Network and The Cooking Channel), so I use anchovies all the time. I even like to eat them straight from the tin as a snack. I LOVE anchovies on pizza. I also crush up raw garlic and smear it along with the anchovies onto my pizza slices. I then dip the pizza crust into the leftover anchovy oil. I bet I am the only writer you have asked so far who has this anchovy obsession. LOL!

We have had a lot of authors say yes to anchovies, but none as passionately as you! What is one thing most people don’t know about you?

That’s a hard one because I’m an open book on Twitter and social media. Everyone knows me for my writing, my violin, and my love of sci fi, horror movies, and my three awesome cats Oreo, Beethoven and Charlotte. 

But what people may not know about me is that I am the world’s WORST tin whistler. I play Celtic fiddle and love the Irish tin whistle. I own a tin whistle and can barely play it. I’m HORRIBLE at it. My cats hate it when I try to play this tin whistle. So that’s my big secret. I’m the world’s worst tin whistler. 

Where can people find you online?

You can follow me on Twitter @paulayoo and also follow my cats @oreothecatyoo I also have two blogs at my website My regular blog is and my official NaPiBoWriWee blog is

©Paula Yoo
Paula Yoo is a children's book author/novelist and a TV writer/producer. Her latest book is TWENTY-TWO CENTS: MUHAMMAD YUNUS AND THE VILLAGE BANK (Lee & Low Books, 2014), illustrated by Jamel Akib. Her YA novel GOOD ENOUGH (HarperCollins, 2008) was a 2009 Honor Book of the Youth Literature of the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature. Her other books include the IRA Notable non-fiction picture book biographies SIXTEEN YEARS IN SIXTEEN SECONDS: THE SAMMY LEE STORY (Lee & Low Books, 2005) and SHINING STAR: THE ANNA MAY WONG STORY (Lee & Low Books, 2009), which also won the 2010 Carter G. Woodson Award from the National Council for the Social Studies. 

She is currently a Supervising Producer for the show MOZART IN THE JUNGLE on Amazon. Her other TV credits include NBC’s The West Wing and SyFy’s Eureka. When she’s not writing, Paula teaches, plays her violin and hangs out with her three cats.

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  1. Hah! Several tins of anchovies in your wonder we get along so well, Paula! We usually have several tins/jars of it too! :D

    You never cease to amaze me with your talent and all that you do and do so well. Maybe I can be just like you when I grow up! ;)

    I can't wait to get my copy of "22 Cents"! xoxox

  2. I really enjoyed this post; thanks for sharing! I participated in this year's NaPiBoWriWee challenge and had a really great time. As a pre-published author, it's so helpful to have challenges such as this to work on the craft of writing. Thanks again!

  3. You had me nodding "yes, yes" up until the anchovies! I didn't complete this year's NaPiBoWriWee but I did last year and love the focus and inspiration. Looking forward to your newest book! Thanks for the generous giveaway.

  4. Paula, I loved this interview and learning all about you and your process! Thanks so much for being in our spotlight!

  5. Awesome interview! Congratulations on your new book! I have anchovies in the freezer, as Koreans use them to make soup stock. (for my husband's soups)

  6. I won your book about Sammy (signed!) and I fell in love with your writing! Great post - thanks for all the great info.

  7. What a GREAT post - totally fascinated by the character behind 22 Cents. And I LOVE that NaPiBoWriWee started as a joke. Didn't participate this year - but am SERIOUSLY considering giving it a try next. Thanks so much!

  8. Well, here I only knew about you through NaPiBoWriWee and never realized how broad your writing for children is! It was great to get to know you a little better, though really I could have done without the straight anchovies :-)

  9. Thanks for the wonderful interview. I learned a lot from Paula!

  10. I disagree with anchovies - but I'm with you all the way on the idea of writing about people changing the world through compassion. Thanks for your insight on writing - and I will definitely make sure I'm signed up for NaPiBoWriWee this year (I did it a few years ago and what fun! what a challenge!)

  11. I loved your post Paula. I remember reading about and seeing TV reports about Yunus. I was so impressed with him and his ideas. I am so glad you have written a children's book about him. I can't wait to read it and add it to my bookshelf.

  12. Very fun to learn more about you. I really appreciate the annual May motivation to write with NaPiBoWriWee ... Thanks.

  13. I would love to read this one!

  14. Thanks for this interview - it was interesting to learn more about Paula's writing background and where her inspiration comes from.


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